Boys basketball: Justus McNair leads way in OT, Joliet West survives Minooka

Joliet West's Justus McNair

JOLIET – Minooka coach Brett Hespell put it best.

“They have a Justus McNair,” Hespell said. “That’s what you need at crunch time.”

McNair scored 20 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, including all four points in overtime, as Joliet West held off upstart Minooka 58-54 in a big Southwest Prairie Conference matchup Monday evening at Joliet West.

The victory was the fifth in a row and seventh in the past eight games for the Tigers (17-9, 12-2 SPC) and keeps them in first place overall in the SPC.

“I’m proud of our guys,” Joliet West coach Jeremy Krieger said. “We were down at times by six and eight points and fought back at the end. On the offensive end, Justus led us as he can, with 20 points in the second half and hit 10 of 12 free throws.”

McNair had six points in a 12-0 fourth-quarter run that gave the Tigers a 51-47 lead with 3:37 to play.

“Minooka came out really well on offense, and we had to get stops and rebounds,” McNair said. “We turned it up on defense.

“I wanted it a lot. Coach taught me to be a leader and lead the team. So I just wanted to stay calm and be a lead guard for the team.”

He was, but Minooka (10-16, 8-6) retook the lead 52-51 on a layup by sophomore forward Zane Caves (13 points, five rebounds) with 1:59 to play in regulation. But junior guard Tristian Saunders scored his only points of the game on a three-point play with 1:33 remaining as Joliet West retook the lead.

Junior forward DJ Hampton (11 points) made a layup with 1:13 left to knot the score at 54. Both teams turned the ball over in the final seconds of regulation, the Tigers missed a hurried shot just before the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

Joliet West won the tip, and McNair scored in the lane 19 seconds later for what would be the only basket in OT. Minooka missed two free throws and three shots in the extra session, including a 3-pointer that would have tied it with six seconds to play.

McNair, who hit a free throw with 1:21 to play in OT, made the first of two free throws with 4.1 seconds left to account for the final score.

Drew King is the only other senior who started for the Tigers. He didn’t score a point, but the 6-foot-10 center grabbed nine rebounds, including seven in the fourth quarter and overtime, to help clamp down on defense.

“Drew King was big for us on defense,” Krieger said. “He was a little winded earlier, so I kept him out, but at the end, he told me, ‘Coach, I’m ready to go.’ What he did was alter shots, grab rebounds, look for the outlet and lead us on defense.”

The game was tied at 12 after the first quarter. A 10-2 spurt gave Minooka a 28-23 halftime lead. McNair had six points as the Tigers opened the third quarter with a 12-2 burst for a 35-30 lead. Undaunted, Minooka had a 13-4 run to end the quarter and go up 43-39 after three. The lead reached 47-39 on a layup by Caves with 6:34 left in regulation.

Senior post player Micah Hamilton had 13 points and 10 boards for Minooka. Junior guard Zion Gross and sophomore guard Aamir Shannon each scored 10 points for the Tigers.

Despite the loss, Minooka has turned it around of late, winning seven of nine games coming in after a 3-13 start to the season.

“It was just that it was all new at the beginning of the season,” Hespell said. “I was new, too. They won four games last year, so winning is new to them. Now we are setting standards, and that’s what it takes.

“This is a great group of kids. We came in believing that we were just as good as Joliet West and that we could beat them. These kids give their all, all the time, and haven’t backed down from anyone.”

McNair believes the Tigers are on their way now as they look for the SPC East title.

“I believe we’re clicking and have turned the corner,” he said. “We’re locked in on the conference championship.”